For most people, migrating is about leaving everything they know to start over in a new country with new rules and norms. It’s almost like tagging along with your best friend to a birthday party where you don’t know anyone and your friend, who’s supposed to be your one familiar face disappears into the crowd. Most migrants experience a disruption to their social network; while that may seem academic, the reality for the new immigrant is having to establish new relationships and connections. For even the most secure persons, that leaves them vulnerable to social and emotional loneliness. Despite this, loneliness is often dismissed as the tradeoff immigrants have to deal with in exchange for greener pastures. It begs the question: is loneliness an overrated side effect of moving abroad or a real problem that more people should be encouraged to speak up about?
*Odera, is a 23-year-old Nigerian who has been in Canada for one year; when she moved in 2021, she had a friend stay with her and help with settling in for the first 3 months. After her friend left, reality hit; she was thousands of miles away from home and had no one to lean on. “I remember waking up on Christmas morning and crying because I was alone with nobody to celebrate”.
*Paul, a 28-year-old Kenyan, has a markedly different experience. After growing up in a large family, and always being surrounded by noise and warmth. He moved abroad to get away from the feeling of being subsumed within his large family unit. “I needed it, for the first time, I was left with just my thoughts, and I have realised I enjoy it.”
Dealing with loneliness abroad
Yet, Paul admits that there are some difficult days, even if you’re an introvert likeGlory* who has spent five years in Canada. She tells me, “Sometimes a community of two people you can hold on to and talk to is needed to take you through a day.” Glory, Odera and Paul agree on one thing: the feeling of loneliness worsened not just because they’re alone, but because of a sense of being exiled in a foreign land. That sort of helplessness can be hard to shake.
A standard web search proposes 101 ways to deal with loneliness, from activities suggestions to tips and tricks that can help navigate this unique mental and emotional state. But how do real people navigate loneliness and do their workarounds differ from what we can find on the internet? According to Glory, “I didn’t know one soul in Winnipeg, and it was tough; it was just myself, and I wasn’t interested in socialising”. LaterGlory wanted to meet people with whom she could have honest conversations and genuinely enjoy spending time, so she researched and found a church that she attended and met her first set of friends. Odera, on the other hands made her first set of friends, while volunteering. Paul met his current pals at work, and they just clicked since they met. Now they see each other almost every day.
Speaking up about loneliness is a taboo
Talking about loneliness goes against the presumption that everyone who migrates has the perfect life. It may explain why there’s little sympathy when migrants talk about loneliness. Odera remembers confiding in a friend about feeling lonely over Facetime, and all she said was, “get over yourself; at least you’re abroad”. Glory read through the comments of a youtube video on loneliness abroad and concluded she wasn’t going to share her feelings with anyone back home.
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Glory shares that in time, not being able to share the problem of loneliness with her friends back home stopped mattering. “You don’t get affected as much as you used to get.” For Paul, after knowing himself, he could form more meaningful relationships with the people in his life and enjoy relationships. For Odera, they are good days, bad days and winter and navigating the last is new every season. “Loneliness sets in for me in Winters because I have to be indoors more.”
Conversations around this are vital, although they are often trivialised. Having frank conversations on feeling out of place in a new country should not be demonised, and we should always create spaces where people can speak about loneliness even if the perception is that they’ve chosen a better life.
*Real names have been changed at the request of the interviewees